Will the Real Matcha Please Stand Up

A few months back I applauded the news that Darjeeling tea had been granted Protected Geographic Indication status by the European Commission.  I posted about this on our Tea Trekker’s blog so that tea enthusiasts could read why this is was an important step forward for the protection of all distinctive tea, not just for Darjeeling.

(To keep this post from being far too long, please click on the link below to refer back to my original post for an explanation of the importance of Protected Status for foodstuffs…and for tea.

http://wp.me/pi2BE-QE )

From my perspective as a veteran tea professional, protecting the name and essence of distinctive (or famous) teas (those teas with un-duplicatable style and flavor that are the result of unique conditions of terroir) is becoming increasingly essential.

At Tea Trekker we are traditionalists, and we support and sell authentic original teas and not copy-cat substitutes. We want our Darjeeling tea to be from Darjeeling, India; our Longjing to be from Xi Hu Region, Zhejiang Province, China; our Tieguanyin to be from Anxi region, Fujian Province, China; our Tung Ting to be from Tung Ting Mt, Lugu Township, Nantou County, Taiwan,  and our Matcha to be real Matcha powder from Japan.

If it were up to me, I would protect all the famous teas from copycat imitators. But protection is not up to me – it is up to the producers in their respective countries to apply for this status. But I can use my blog to enlighten tea enthusiasts about the teas that I believe need to be granted protected product status and what to watch out for in the marketplace.

So I begin my defense of authentic teas with my case for traditional Japanese Matcha.

WHY JAPANESE MATCHA?

Because Matcha is unique in the world of tea. It is the most labor- intensive tea cultivated and produced tea in Japan. It is foundation upon which Japanese tea drinking culture is built, and it commands respect across all borders in the tea drinking world.  it is as relevant today as it was in the days of  Samurai warlords who lay down their swords to drink humble bowls of Matcha with the great tea masters of their day.

It is easy to define Matcha in just a few words – powdered green tea – but few perhaps realize that Japan also produces other powdered green teas that are not Matcha. These teas are sold as powdered green tea, and there is no attempt to fraud the consumer. I applaud this clarity and transparency which shows respect for both producer and consumer and allows Matcha to retain its venerable reputation while offering consumers other, clearly-identified, less expensive alternatives.

What concerns me in the U.S. is the proliferation of non-Japanese powdered green teas  marketed as ‘Matcha’ both on the internet and by a few notable tea wholesalers. Calling these powdered teas ‘Matcha’ suggests that they are Japanese when the truth may be quite different.

One such offender has gone as far as to advertise  Chinese ‘Matcha’ as a less expensive alternative with the same taste! Another shameful tea wholesaler is marketing non-Japanese green and ‘white’ tea powders of unspecified origins (Africa? ) as ‘Matcha’. These teas are less expensive than Matcha so I question the quality of the leaf used and wonder if the tea has been processed with the same care and diligence as Japanese Matcha.

My issue regarding the mis-use of the name Match is  the confusion that these mis-labeled or un-labeled non- Japanese powdered tea products bring to the marketplace. Un-informed consumers may not ever know that these products are not true Matcha, nor that they are purchasing products that in our opinion, have little to offer in terms of flavor or cultural integrity.

Other than marketing a new product for the sake of marketing a new product, I wonder what these tea products really have to offer tea lovers.  To me, product marketing that elevates the status of non-authentic products to something grander by the suggestion that their products have something in common with the authentic original is misleading, plain and simple. This is wiggly ground at best.

I believe that these tea powders should be properly identified as tea powder or powdered tea and clearly labeled as to their country of origin.  If their strong suit is for baking or mixing into beverages, then fine. But they should not be marketed as if they were on the same playing field with genuine Japanese Matcha. Here is why I feel strongly about this.

On one of our tea buying trips to China we visited a Japanese-built, Japanese-operated ‘Sencha’ factory in eastern China. The tea we tasted was not delicious and nothing like Japanese Sencha, but it suited the needs of this company as a source of inexpensive Sencha-style tea to sell to manufacturers of bottled tea beverages, green tea desserts, green tea cosmetics, etc. This tea factory also produces ‘Matcha’, but as their leaf green tea was sour and unpleasant (the  wrong tea bush varieties and very different terroir), we found that the powdered tea only amplified those undesirable characteristics. The tea lacked the vibrant green color of authentic Matcha, and the taste was thin, metallic and off-putting. In no way was this powdered tea an acceptable substitute for Japanese Matcha.

(NB: One exception to the above…..I want to make the point here that I am not including Korean powdered green tea in this ‘mis-labeled’ commentary. All of the Korean powdered green tea that  I am aware of has been clearly labeled as a product of Korea, and I applaud them for labeling their products truthfully and with pride ).

WHAT IS MATCHA?

Historically, the usage and production of Matcha powder is associated with Japan and Japan’s unique tea drinking practice. The Japanese learned of Chinese tea drinking practices in the Song dynasty (960-1279) that utilized tea which was scraped from tea cakes made from compressed, powdered tea.  By the 16th and 17th centuries, Japanese tea masters perfected the technique of grinding whole leaf tea into tea powder. Tea masters whipped this gossamer tea powder into a froth with bamboo whisks in an over-sized tea bowl known as a chawan.

Matcha was used by a succession of influential tea masters who shaped and codified Japan’s nascent tea drinking culture. As each tea master was succeeded by another, they effected changes and re-defined the tenets of tea drinking. From these early tea drinking methods, Chanoyu ( the Japanese tea ceremony) developed, and Matcha became tea royalty.

Today, as in the past, Matcha is serious business in Japan. Very exacting standards for Matcha cultivation and manufacture are followed, and devotees search out venerable tea shops for their favorite Matcha. In a country that produces much expensive tea, Matcha is still Japan’s most expensive tea.

SO WHILE MATCHA IS POWDERED TEA, NOT ALL POWDERED TEA IS MATCHA

Starting with the manner in which the fresh leaf for Matcha is cultivated to the subsequent steps of specialized tea manufacture in the tea factory, Matcha is a the result of precise detail and exactness.

With the exception of one other tea – Gyokuro – the fresh leaf  that is grown for Matcha is cultivated under conditions unlike that used for Japan’s leaf teas. The leaf processing techniques are unique for Matcha as well, so much so that Matcha is processed with specialized equipment used only for processing Matcha.

Japan produces both Matcha and powdered green tea, and the processes for each have little in common.  Japanese powdered teas are sold as that – powdered tea – and not as Matcha. Tea companies that specialize in Matcha create different styles of Matcha with varying flavor profiles for various uses. Some Matcha is for Chanoyu; others are for everyday tea drinking, hot or iced; and some for culinary or cosmetic uses.

TRADITIONAL USES FOR MATCHA

For Chanoyu, some types of Matcha are used for usacha (thin tea ) while others are designed to be used for koicha ( thick tea ). Each tea ceremony schools has a particular Matcha that has been selected by the Grand Master and is blended to his wishes. These Matchas or okonomi are used by the tea teachers when conducting tea ceremonies and in classes with advanced students.

Different Matcha is used throughout the four seasons, as well. Some Matcha is to be used from the middle of June to the end of August, or from early December to early January. Practitioners of Chanoyu select their Matcha for specific tea ceremonies with the same diligent thought that they put into selecting the appropriate chawans and other elements for the particular toriawase ( grouping of tea utensils).

HOW IS MATCHA PRODUCED ?

Cultivation:  fresh leaf for Matcha is plucked from tea bushes that are grown in the shade for a period of time under a covering called a tana. The tana is a permanent frame structure that stands all year long. Approximately 20-30 days before plucking either mesh cloth (modern-way) or straw matting (traditional way ) is placed over the tana and the bushes are covered. This method cuts the available light that the plants receive by about 90%, insuring that the usual photosynthesis within the plants stops, and that chlorophyll production will be high. This reversal of the internal leaf chemistry increases sweetness in the finished tea by producing a higher percentage of amino acids. This is one reason why good Matcha has a creamy, umami-type mouthfeel.

 Plucking Techniques: without natural light tea buds stretch towards the minimal ight available to them. The leaves grow long and slender and have a weak stem. Shade-grown leaf for Matcha ( Gyokuro, too ) is usually hand-plucked ( whereas most Japanese tea is machine harvested).

Manufacturing Techniques: when the fresh leaf enters the tea factory it is quickly steamed on a conveyor belt, then air-dried in a vertical wind-tunnel where the leaf is  free to blow loosely around the tunnel and remain as flat as possible. After this, the leaf is passed through an oven-type dryer. Unlike the process for making leaf green teas, leaf for Matcha is never rolled, pressed or otherwise shaped.

Refining Techniques: at this point, the leaf is called TENCHA. The tencha is chopped into small bits, and the stems and veins are removed from the leaf by an electrostatic cleaning. The de-stemmed tencha is once again cut and dried.

Grinding Techniques: the tencha is milled to a micron-fine powder in a rotary mill comprised of two granite millstones. The millstones are kept in prime operating condition by stone mill carvers who keep the intricate, web-like pattern of fine, tiny grooves on the stones in precise cutting condition. Slow, careful grinding of the tencha brings out the flavor and fragrance of the tea, which should be fresh and lively, vegetal, slightly bitter yet with a measure of sweetness. The best Matcha is full-bodied and creamy, and it should not be grassy or bitter.  The more costly Matcha for Chanoyu are splendid, rich,  mouth-filling and silky and like no other tea.

HOW IS JAPANESE GREEN TEA POWDER DIFFERENT FROM MATCHA?

In contrast, most Japanese powdered green tea is  made from kabuse leaf (fresh leaf that is shade for less time). It is then processed using the same manufacture for Sencha green tea, not the manufacture for tencha. This leaf is  ground in a drum-roll grinder with the stems and veins remaining, so the flavors will be stronger and less sweet. The powder will be less fine.

Japanese green tea powders are wonderful for culinary uses as the flavors are stronger and the leaf has more astringency which stands up well to the addition of other ingredients. Also, the cost of powdered green tea is significantly less than the cost of Matcha.

BECOMING A MATCHA ENTHUSIAST

We are Matcha enthusiasts, and want others to enjoy this special beverage, too.

Remember, that when you drink Matcha means that you are consuming the entirety of the tea leaf.  Real Matcha has a sweetness and delicious creaminess to the taste and mouthfeel because the stem and veins have been removed from the leaf.

Matcha is expensive, and the cost for top grades of Matcha is especially high. But one does not have to purchase tea ceremony-quality tea to have an enjoyable, everyday drinking Matcha. Some Japanese tea companies recognize the cost factor and are making ‘everyday’ grades of Matcha available for times when cost is a factor.

Also, less expensive Japanese powdered green teas are a terrific alternative to the more costly Matcha for baking or adding to slushies or fruit smoothies.

Try and discern if your tea vendor is selling true Japanese Matcha and powdered Japanese green tea versus other powdered teas from other places, and make sure you know what you are purchasing.

Freshness is important, too. Matcha should be from the current harvest or the previous harvest, depending on the month of the year the tea is purchased.

WHEN IS MATCHA NOT MATCHA?

There are those in the tea industry who argue that it is merely the processing techniques and manufacture that makes tea what it is. Therefore,  they believe, the same tea can be produced in any place in the world if the original techniques and leaf pluck are used. In other words, Matcha is ‘Matcha’ is Matcha.’

We disagree completely with this idea.

We believe that unique teas are the result of a combination of the elements of terroir (place) that simply cannot be reproduced, such as:

  • specific conditions due to geography and altitude
  • soil conditions,  climate and weather patterns
  • the craft of tea making ( history, culture and custom)
  • technique and skill ( expertise cannot always be copied successfully from one place to another)
  • local tea bush cultivars and varietals
  • seasonal plucking styles and methods
  • method of leaf manufacture

Accordingly, Tea Trekker only sells authentic Japanese Matcha and powdered green tea from Japan. We firmly believe no other Matcha tastes like Japanese Matcha.

We also believe that tea makers who follow a long line of tea makers before them and strive to keep the unique tea making traditions of their region and country alive deserve our support and our encouragement.

Please feel free to point out the differences between Matcha and powdered green tea to others that you encounter on the internet or in tea shops!

My elaboration on Matcha is meant only to give a brief overview of the particulars of this extraordinary tea. Certainly anyone interested in further study of Matcha will find this to be a richly rewarding topic filled with depth and dimension.

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5 thoughts on “Will the Real Matcha Please Stand Up

  1. Great Article. Definitely agree. With 30 years of experience in the industry from Tea Planter(in Sri Lanka) to Processing Adviser, Blender, Global Marketeer and Quality Controller, I totally agree to your comments. We should have specific identity for all teas and also protect traditional techniques.

  2. This and the Darjeeling post were both mind numbingly informative and written with a great intention.

    You mention that it will only be growers who can take the painstaking paperwork path through bureocratic bombshelling with he prayer that they will somehow come out the otherside with a small seal that will help everyone in the tea enjoying equation out.

    However, I believe whole heartedly that by writing this very post you too are galvanizing the masses of enthusiasts who want these legitimizing stickers badly. Consumers can tip the scales too and I thank you for pulling me up from the table and setting me on the Real-or-bust platform alongside you. We might have only lowered a millimeter but, like in Matcha production, a millimeter can make all the difference.

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